Collaboration is key to ‘nanobio’ development, say experts at GBC conference

Maryland’s research universities are developing new levels of collaboration to make advances in the emerging field of nanobiology, said experts at a Nov. 28 GBC conference on nanomedicine.

The conference at the Columbia Sheraton drew more than 50 scientists and advocates for Maryland’s development as a center for nanobiotechnology research and industry.

Nanobiotechnology and nanomedicine involve the application of nanotechnology to the life sciences field. Nanotechnology is the creation and use of devices and systems through the control of very small molecular matter whose size is measured in nanometers. A nanometer is one-billionth of an inch. A single human hair is 80,000 nanometers thick.

The application of nanotechnology to life sciences is relatively new, with existing and potential medical products focusing on uses from drug delivery to diagnostic applications such as imaging, and the development of “biosensors” that detect life-threatening disease at very early stages.

Only a few regions in the world have the resources to be centers for nanobiotechnology, and Maryland is one of them, said University System of Maryland Chancellor Dr. William E. “Brit” Kirwan, who is championing state investment in resources to further nanobio research.

“It is essential that the state, the federal government, and the private sector work in unison” to develop nanotechnology, Kirwan said. The merger of engineering and biosciences and the confluence of nanotech and nanomedicine presents “tremendous potential that something so small could lead to something so big,” he said.

In 2005, global investment in nanobiotechnology was $9.6 billion – up 10 percent from 2004. By 2020, some experts predict that nanobiotechnology will account for $1 trillion in investment and generate 2 million jobs worldwide, according to Kirwan.

“Maryland is ideally positioned to be a leader in nanobiotechnology,” said GBC president Donald C. Fry. “It’s critically important for us to seize this opportunity as a state.”

A key focus of current nanobiotechnology is to develop multidisciplinary teams of experts to advance research.

It “goes well beyond the philosophy of traditional collaboration” within a single university, said Peter Searson, director of the Institute for NanoBioTechnology at Johns Hopkins University. Nanobio researchers require quick access to a multitude of cooperative expertise in dozens of disciplines ranging from surface engineering to cell biology, therapeutic diagnostics, and animal studies just to name a few, he said.

“At every step along the way everybody has to be communicating with everybody else,” Searson said. “Universities just aren’t configured to attack such multidisciplinary problems in this way.”

To address this issue, the University of Maryland, Baltimore, the University of Maryland College Park, and the University of Maryland Biotechnology Institute have formed a collaborative network for nanotechnology and nanobiotechnolgy research.

University of Maryland collaborators are working on ways to deliver medicine to specific, targeted sites in the body to achieve maximum effectiveness and minimal toxicity, said Dr. Hamid Ghandehari, director of the University of Maryland School of Pharmacy’s Center for Nanomedicine and Cellular Delivery.

Potential products include “nanopills” to achieve precise targeting through oral delivery. Scientists are also working to convert genetic research into methods for carrying medicine not only to specific organs but to specific cells. Potentially on the horizon is the development of “nanotubes,” or so-called “minibuses” that could also perform highly accurate delivery and diagnostic tasks at the cellular level.

“These are not concepts. They’re getting there,” Ghandehari said. “Some are even in clinical trials.”

Meanwhile, Johns Hopkins has collected more than 120 faculty members from the arts, sciences, engineering, medical, public health and applied physics disciplines under the umbrella of Hopkins’ Institute for NanoBioTechnology.

“One of the challenges for us is to integrate research, education and tech transfer operations,” Searson said.

Among projects underway at Hopkins is a thumb-sized hand-held personal device where a patient could take blood samples every couple of months simply by pricking a finger. The device would analyze the blood and transmit the results to a patient’s doctor by wireless technology. All of the technologies to do this are in place. Scientists need only to develop and perfect the device, Searson said.

Hopkins researchers are also working on a “smart pill” and a “nano robot” programmed to attack the molecular structure of cancer cells and viruses to make them harmless.

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